A May-September romance devolves into dysfunction and regret.
Much like Barnes’ 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, this one involves a man looking back at a youthful error in judgment and considering its consequences. Paul, the narrator, recalls being 19 and falling for 48-year-old Susan, who's in a loveless, sexless, and abusive marriage. Cocksure about their relationship in spite of others’ judgments—Paul’s parents and Susan’s husband are righteously indignant, and the duo are kicked out of the tennis club where they began their affair—Paul decides to move in with Susan to pursue “exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.” The thrill of independence is short-lived, though, as Susan’s nascent alcoholism intensifies; the first half of the book mentions Susan’s drinking habit, but as if to mirror Paul’s youthful ignorance, Barnes doesn’t overtly signal how deep she’s sunk until she’s practically beyond help. Barnes also shifts the narrative voice across the novel to underscore Paul’s callowness: The novel opens in first person, turns to second as if to shift blame upon the reader, then closes in a bereft, distant third. Barnes’ characterizations of both Paul and Susan are detailed and robust, though given the narrative structure, Susan remains a bit of a cipher. What prompted her to drink? What kept her from pushing back against her husband? Most critically, what drew her to Paul? Paul, though, is mainly concerned with what made their romance distinct from the usual romantic clichés. In other words, he’s narcissistic, and his rhetoric, in first person or not, often takes on a needy, pleading tone (“sometimes, first love cauterizes the heart”; “tough love is also tough on the lover.”) But that’s by Barnes’ design, and it’s consistently clear that Paul was in love, just tragically ill-equipped to manage it.
A somber but well-conceived character study suffused with themes of loss and self-delusion.